I ran into Ted Demme is a Santa Monica bookstore while he was on a promotional tour with Johnny Depp vehicle Blow; he was about as unpretentious a film-director as you could imagine, friendly and self-deprecating. He died the following year, robbing cinema of a promising voice. I was embarrassed at the time to gush over his 1996 drama Beautiful Girls, but looking back on our 3rd Street Promenade stroll, I’m glad I gave him both barrels in terms of praise, because it’s a favourite movie of mine.
The male POV in movies is often an excuse for locker-room talk, female objectification and violence. Scott Rosenberg’s script for Beautiful Girls contains all of these things, but turns it upside down to provide a caustic, unsentimental view of male immaturity. Timothy Hutton toplines as Willie, a piano player who returns home from NYC to find his old buddies haven’t changed; Matt Dillon, Michael Rappaport are amongst those contributing neat portraits of guys who defiantly refuse to outgrow their home-town of Knight’s Ridge, Massachusetts, where the snow is deep and the bars are busy. Tommy (Dillon) is cheating on Sharon (Mira Sorvino) while Paul (Rappaport) unwisely plans a date with out-of-towner Uma Thurman. But Willie has changed, and has his girlfriend arriving soon; he feels pulled back by the inertia of his friends, and conflict ensues.
The key character isn’t mentioned above; Natalie Portman, at 13, plays Marty, the girl next door, who Willie realises will turn into the kind of beautiful girl that his friends idolise; through a platonic friendship, Willie realises the dangers of objectifying women, and adjusts his world-view accordingly. Willie attempts to defuse the chaos impending due to Tommy’s infidelity, but ends up stoking passions by crashing a snow-plow into a car-load of thugs in a rousing scene.
Rosenberg has gone on to anonymous work on big films (Jumanji, Venom), but displays a gift for fresh dialogue, notably the way that the women (including Martha Plimpton and a strident Rosie O’Donnell) talk. He understands that the party is over for these men, no matter how many shots they drink; if they can’t sustain a relationship, their days as men-about-town are numbered.
Returning home is a classic theme that worked for Garden State amongst others, but Beautiful Girls has a relaxed charm that sets it apart from most 90’s movies. A cheap and cheerful £2.49 to rent on Prime, it’s a minor gem, filled with stars, comic incident, and insight; the kind of salty, self-aware movie that nobody seems to make these days.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this film.